Why Thailand needs its king

As we lurch from one political crisis to the next, there is time for contemplation and reflection. One of the more recent hot topics for debate is the legality and intellectual backbone of Article 112: the lese majeste law. Polarization here is natural. One side views it as freedom of speech on trial while the other side fears that it is the natural road to a republic.

Despite much intellectual hoopla and cerebral jousting the majority of the country has largely stayed quiet on the issue. Voranai Vanijaka of the Bangkok Post has unoriginally dubbed the masses, the silent majority. Regardless, for the most part the monarchy and the current monarch is widely supported both for its role in the past and its position in the present.

If one looks at the history of the country, a question that ultimately must come to the fore is why is the monarchy so cherished and revered? After all, in 1932 the monarchy was on the decline. Some members of the People’s Party that deposed the absolute monarchy, including a certain Pridi Bhanomyong, wanted to do away with the institution altogether. The reigning monarch of the time, Prajadhipok, would go on to abdicate his throne.

There have been many attempts to answer such a question. The historiography of the issue would attempt to explain it with a myriad of reasons from the fight against global communism to the politics of post-Second World War Thailand. What is the most obvious explanation is often forgot. The reason that the monarchy and the monarch is so loved is because simply put, Thailand has always needed him.

Take for example post-war Thailand (or Siam if you must). The country was in shambles. The disastrous regime of Field Marshall Phibulsongkram had ended in defeat, a loss of national prestige, and reparations that might have doomed the country. Furthermore the armed forces were at each other’s throats with the navy fighting the army and police in the streets of Bangkok. Who was the one constant presence throughout the turmoil? The current reigning monarch and his older brother who was king before him.

Even during the heights of the communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia and the ensuing joyride that should be referred to as the “American Adventure in Indochina,” Thailand emerged relatively stronger. While our neighbours fell to the scourge of totalitarianism (Myanmar), communism (Vietnam, Laos) and genocidal regimes (Cambodia), Thailand emerged relatively unscathed. Were it not for a monarchy that people respected and rallied around, the country might not be in the position it is today. It is worth noting that unpopular monarchs met a different end, Vietnam exiled the puppet king Bao Dai, as did Cambodia and Laos with their respective monarchies.

There is of course the argument that we were able to withstand the onslaught of communist incursion because of the heavy handedness of the totalitarian regimes of the 50s, 60s and 70s. There is some merit to this argument but at the same time the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem were much more totalitarian than anything Thailand ever had and met with a very different end. I will concede that comparative politics in this case is troublesome because of the history of the two countries are so vastly different. One was a former colony with a strong sense of nationalism (and consequently unification-ism) that can be traced back almost 8 centuries while the other was able to maintain its sovereignty due to the negotiations of its monarchs.

So that brings us into the modern era, one shaped by continued military coups, corrupt officials and barely electable parties. Since 1991 Thailand has had two military coups, one gigantic financial meltdown, an exiled prime minister, numerous street protests and a judiciary that acts in the best interest of itself. We have had floods and droughts, a sectarian insurgency, an international jewel scandal and numerous other proud accomplishments. Today one side claims to be the harbinger of democracy and liberty but has done little to promote either. We have another party, ironically called the Democrats, who despite their proud insistence at being the oldest political party has done nothing of worth or value in its long and elongated history.

So who is there to defend the poor? To serve their best interest? Who has been a constant presence of stability in a sea of political sewage? There can be only one answer.

Is the system perfect? No, issues of government and governance are rarely perfect. On the subject of religion, the most ‘perfect’ of all philosophy (*wink, wink, nudge, nudge), the famously misquoted passage from Karl Marx reads:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

It is silly when people bring up the question of the monarchy when there is no question. We have created a state in which it is necessary to have a King for without him we are doomed to the mass of military arrogance, political corruption and moral decay. Even today, Thailand needs its King.

Cod Satrusayang is a writer and blogger based in Bangkok. His new book The Fall is due out in the summer of 2014.